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Good Is Good: Alcohol + Walden’s Pond

Thursday, January 24, 2013

 

Tom Matlack is the former CFO of the Providence Journal and is the founder of The Good Men Project, a non-profit charitable corporation based in Rhode Island and dedicated to helping organizations that provide educational, social, financial, and legal support to men and boys at risk.

This morning I went to my AA meeting. It was the first time in months that I have actually felt anything there with my heart. A woman brought her toddler in and he gradually woke up in his stroller next to me and then got out with his striped bodysuit—onesie fuzzy PJs—jumping and calling out in baby-talk. The child showed so much enthusiasm, so much blind innocence, so much life that it moved me almost to tears. It’s been years since tears flowed from my eyes, so I didn’t cry. But those big blue eyes staring up at me demanded that I wake from my slumber.

As I sat there I realized that my nightmares recently have been about drinking. I may or may not be an alcoholic, and alcoholism may or may not be a disease. But for me it symbolizes the very worst part of me. That part which wants to die. After so many years sober I have no desire to drink other than as a metaphoric bullet to my temple. A Twitter page, Coke Zero, coffee ice cream, and a Cuban cigar are my vices of choice now. Booze is beyond all of that. It’s a terror that wakes me up in a cold sweat whether or not I have a fever. And that bad dream stays with me all day, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that I can’t quite figure out nor can I shake off.

My lungs are still filled with nasty tasting fluid that saps my strength, a God-awful flu over a week old still hanging on me like bags of sand around my shoulders. I found myself lying on the family room couch with a blanket when Elena came home from lunch. I’m trying to sort out how much is a hangover from physical illness and how much is mental, emotionally, spiritual depletion.

As I lay there, the voices in my head began to inform me that I have so much further to go if I am going to take this concept of letting go, of quieting my mind. Just this much has been really uncomfortable. But it’s also made me aware of how much I am a quivering mass of raw nerve endings. I put out so much energy to cover the fact that I can’t feel, I don’t want to feel, I don’t want anyone to figure out my secret.

What came to me was Thoreau at Walden Pond. My father has been with me a lot recently as I face into this thing, this monster, I’ve created at my own hands. I’m brought back to first principles as I look at my boys and return, whether I like it or not, to my own boyhood in search of some kind of answer in my attempt at stillness.

My dad the English professor brought my brother and me to Walden Pond many times on journeys from our home in Amherst into Boston to go the aquarium or a museum. On one such drive down Route 2 in the dead of winter, he took our quite old white Renault wagon down the then-unpaved driveway to the edge of the pond for a picnic in a blustery snowstorm. The car got stock and my dad had to walk out to find help. The first tow truck also got stuck, so it took a second one using a wench connected to a massive oak tree by a huge metal chain to get us all out of the monastery which Henry David built.

At least that is my memory of it, which most certainly could have grown up and blossomed into something far more dramatic than it actually was in the years since the actual event.

The memory of that day with my dad and my brother, and others like it, left a lasting impression on me. Having lived my entire adult life in and around Boston, Walden Pond has always been a short drive away. And there have been periods when I went there quite frequently, notably during the period when I was getting sober, getting divorced, and first trying to put my life back together after a crisis of epic proportions.

In recent years, it’s been more of a faint drumbeat in my ears. Elena, Cole and I have walked there several times a year. But I didn’t read much of anything into that, other than a convenient place for an outing.

Today though, I came back to the essence of the place, which is not really about the water and rock and woods but about the man in his cabin, isolating himself from worldly things to go inward. To live deliberately. To suck the very marrow out of life.

My tendency is to want to do things that end up in an elaborate game of the cat chasing its tail. It becomes an infinite, and exhausting, loop.

Something has broken me out of that cycle—whether the flu, my stupidity online, my kids, or facing mortality—and once awareness is arrived at, it is near impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

So as I lay in a state of semi-agony this morning, with strange wheezing sounds coming from my lungs, I concluded that I have to do even less and go inwards even more. Grasping at the walls of the cave will only cause me more pain. Free fall is the only way now. What comes, I do not know, but I have to trust that, as with Thoreau, there are great rewards to the slowing down of life and cultivation of the inner knowing which cannot be reached through the kinds of exertion that have so trapped me in my own life.

 

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